Battered senseless, choked into unconsciousness repeatedly, bones were broken repeatedly, American mother, Holly Collins, received no justice, no protection, in Minnesota. She lost custody of the two children she was trying hard to protect from their father’s rages and beatings. When Collins believed that her children might not survive another week — or another day — she fled and received political asylum in Holland. A powerful documentary exists about her case.
Collins was the first and only such American mother to do so.
Other “protective mothers,” like Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, arranged for her parents to flee with her daughter to New Zealand, which had no jurisdictional reciprocity with the United States. Dr. Morgan sat in jail in Washington, D.C., for more than a year because she refused to disclose her daughter’s whereabouts. I personally talked to her daughter’s therapists, who assured me that, in their view, her daughter was being sexually abused by her father.
These cases took place in the late 1980s and the mid-1990s. Can this still be happening?
If a battered mother is involved in a custody dispute, her lawyer must, in good conscience, advise her not to mention domestic violence; if she does, chances are she will lose custody.
According to “protective” mothers and their legal and psychological advocates, who spoke at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany in May, this crisis has only deepened. If a battered mother is involved in a custody dispute, her lawyer must, in good conscience, advise her not to mention domestic violence; if she does, chances are she will lose custody. And, if she knows that her child is also being psychologically terrorized, beaten, and perhaps sexually abused, she will almost definitely lose custody if she dares mention this. She will be seen as a “parental alienator,” a vindictive and crazy liar.
Let’s think of this as Catch-23 and Catch-24.
British filmmaker, Rachel Lewis, is currently working on a film about battered American mothers who have lost custody of their children. The on-screen testimonies are riveting and heartbreaking. You may see the trailer here, and if you are as moved and impressed by it as I was, you may contribute to her efforts to complete this film in time to enter it in the Sundance Competition later this year.
At the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, we heard from battered, protective mothers and from their advocates. The mothers are brave, compelling, frustrated, outraged, and disheartened by their cases’ glacial progress (or non-progress) and by the continuing absence of justice for battered mothers and their children. Some mothers have been raised in poverty, others in wealth; some are incest victims or have endured great violence in their own childhoods. Some married “nice enough” men who turned out to be sadistic and controlling sociopaths.
Many of these mothers suffer from complex post-traumatic symptoms and have, in effect, been “disabled” or wounded by their experiences both within a violent marriage and within a misogynistic court system. Under pressure, they are often not their own best advocates. Think about how a normal, protective mother might respond to blistering, public allegations that she is the abusive parent, that she has maligned the abuser and does not deserve custody of the child she has raised and is trying to protect.
According to New Jersey lawyer and long-time advocate for mothers and children Toby Kleinman, even after the earliest American domestic violence statutes were enacted, many American judges “came to it with prejudice. They sometimes believed that a wife provoked violence and that provoked violence was okay. They believed that violent men could change and that they could recognize which men were violent. They thought a temporary restraining order or an anger management class would solve the problem. They also did not believe women.”
Amazingly, violent men used the court system to further control and intimidate their wives. With the help of Fathers Rights groups, they spearheaded and funded a movement for joint custody, claimed that (violent) fathers have a right to parent and that women are “alienating’” their children.
Kleinman says: “At that time, courts did not understand that an abusive parent, usually a man, could dress in three-piece suits; many did not look like criminals. They wore ties and jackets and were often charming.”
In my opinion, this is still the case.
According to Doreen Ludwig, in her book Motherless America, the government has sponsored “fatherhood programs” in a misguided effort to get single mothers off welfare. In essence, if a father is willing to support a child (or promise to do so), even if that father also abuses the child and her mother, this is seen as a pro-child outcome as “consolidation/mediation.” Some violent fathers “know that custody of the children will give them the financial upper hand…(also) women believe that a judge will protect them. But nothing could be further from the truth for the woman whose husband has money.”
Attorney and educator Barry Goldstein has some answers. He suggests that “The Safe Child Act,” a comprehensive state legislative proposal to reform outdated custody court practices, be adopted in lieu of ‘the best interests of the child.’ “
Why? Because the child’s best interests are traditionally viewed through subjective and often biased eyes. The right to have a father, even a violent one, and access to a father’s higher income, has been seen as in the child’s best interests. Freedom from domestic violence, both as a direct victim and as an eye-witness, is not. Access to one’s primary caretaker, usually one’s mother, is not always seen as in the “child’s best interest.” Appearing “fair” to both parents often trumps what a child may need.
the health and safety of children must be the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions.
According to Goldstein: “The Safe Child Act would require that the health and safety of children must be the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. This is especially important because the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the CDC found that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will suffer more illness and injuries, and their lives will be shortened because of the trauma. The Safe Child Act will require courts to integrate important scientific research, such as ACE, and would bar the use of unscientific theories such as ones based on the belief that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. The Safe Child Act provides for an early hearing limited to abuse issues. This would allow cases that now take many months or years to be resolved in a few hours or less.”
At the conference, Goldstein also discussed the “Quincy Solution,” which is “based on the original Quincy Model which was used from the late-1970s until the mid-1990s. Quincy, Massachusetts District Attorney Bill Delahunt, noticed that virtually every prisoner in a nearby high-security prison had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often sexual abuse. He believed that preventing domestic violence would reduce all crimes, which is exactly what happened. A county that averaged 5-6 homicides (a year) enjoyed several years with no murders. Similar practices also dramatically reduced domestic violence in other communities like Nashville and San Diego.”
In my updated edition of Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody, I had no choice but to label some of what is happening as follows: “Court Enabled Incest in the 1980s and 1990s;” “Court Enabled Incest in the Twenty-first Century;” and “Legal Torture From 1986-2010.”
Some judges can be bought; many absolutely cannot. I know there are good judges and good mental health professionals. They may be in the minority, and they may also be pressured to “give the violent man what he wants and just move the case along.” Or, when a battered, protective mother keeps insisting on re-visiting the case, she will be seen as the problem and punished for daring to annoy a very busy judge.
Some lawyers, both male and female, mistrust and dislike women. I know that good lawyers exist—but even good lawyers cannot afford to represent relatively indigent battered mothers pro bono for anywhere from 4 to 10 or 15 years. The cost of doing so is astronomical and can destroy a lawyer’s practice and peace of mind. And, when a lawyer goes too far in zealously representing the best interests of a battered mother and her sexually abused child, chances are he might be cited for contempt and have his law license suspended.
Part Two of a Series
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies and the author of sixteen books including the best-selling Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, and An American Bride in Kabul. She is a co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969) and the National Women’s Health Network (1975).